I’ve done a lot of research trying to find the best outdoor apps for my iPhone. I love the utility of a smart phone for the backcountry, and these apps help bring out the potential of the phone.
⇒ MotionX-GPS – This is my GPS app. It has completely replaced my Garmin GPS for backcountry navigation. It’s only 99 cents but it’s packed with almost everything you need in a GPS. You can create waypoints, navigate to a waypoint, record your trip data, create tracks, upload and download waypoints and tracks, use different coordinate systems, share your location information with friends if you have a data signal, and download maps for offline use. The default offline map options are the open source topo and street maps. I actually use these maps most of the time because they often have trails mapped on them that you can’t find on the USGS topo maps. If you’re willing to spend an additional $4.99, you can install custom maps in MotionX. I searched and searched until I found out that you can add USGS maps from CalTopo as well as many other custom map types. This webpage helped get me what I needed for custom maps: http://geo.inge.org.uk/gme_maps.htm. I use the USGS maps when I’m looking for caves or when I’m canyoneering, but I usually use the OpenCycle maps when I’m hiking. Just as you need to do on most GPS units, don’t forget that you need to manually copy your waypoints to your computer if you want to keep backups of the waypoints. This is done through iTunes, and the manual describes how to do it. As for bad stuff about MotionX, it doesn’t have different waypoint icons, which can be bothersome when you’re trying to quickly look at different types of waypoints on a map. However, you can organize the waypoints by folders, which helps some.
⇒ MyNature Tracks – This is a great app. It has pictures of tracks, scat, and the animals themselves for lots of major animals you might encounter in the backcountry. The app will take you through a process to help you identify a track or scat based on characteristics of the track or scat or you can just look up a particular animal. This $6.99 app has proven very useful in identifying animal signs. It also includes animal noises. I’m not going to lie, I have used this feature to scare my wife on more than one occasion in a dark tent at night.
⇒ Red Cross First Aid – This app can help you provide emergency first aid. It helps you identify the medical problem and provides you with steps to help treat the problem. It won’t make you a doctor, but it can help you remember the basics when you need them.
⇒ Knot Guide – This free app is great for someone like me. I can’t remember how to tie knots for anything. This app will show you step-by-step how to tie almost any knot you can imagine. You can bookmark your favorite knots so that you have quick access to the ones you use most often. I love this app.
⇒ Campfire Tales – Okay, this app is really only useful if you’re camping out with kids because the stories are pretty cheesy. But it can be good if you’re out with kids because you don’t have to make up your own cheesy stories.
⇒ Goodreader – There are probably better PDF apps out there now, but this one was free when I first downloaded it so it’s the one I use. It now costs $4.99 so you might want to look around, but I still want to talk about the utility of a PDF reader app. I use this app to store all kinds of useful backcountry documents. For example, I have manuals for my camera, SteriPen, inReach, stove, and compass. The compass manual reminds me the steps for taking a bearing and plotting a bearing. I have notes for things like different canyoneering anchors, how to tie a swiss seat harness, and different camera settings for different situations. I have trail maps of parks that I have downloaded from websites as well as trail descriptions that I have downloaded. While some may think it’s useless to take some of this stuff or I should have this stuff memorized, I figure I can now carry an entire library of information that doesn’t weigh anything…so, why not? I can carry scanned pages from a trail guide without having to carry the weight of the pages. Carrying PDFs in my phone is a great way to keep whatever information I want to take with me on the trail. Use your imagination, think of information you’ve wished you had with you, and put it on your phone.
⇒ Books – I have the entire Bible, the entire works of Shakespeare, Poe, Emerson, and many classics. I also have Buck Tilton’s Wilderness First Responder book downloaded in my Kindle app, where I also download lighter reading for the trail. Bottom line: you can carry an entire book shelf with no extra weight, so enjoy reading.
⇒ Games – Don’t forget games for those long stormy days inside the tent. We often play Trivial Pursuit, but I don’t see it in the iTunes store anymore. Just find some good games that you enjoy. Because they don’t weigh anything.
⇒ Star Walk – This app has provided countless hours of entertainment for us. We love astronomy, and this app helps us learn new constellations, find satellites and the space station, and generally just entertains us. It also lets you know sunrise and sunset times for your specific location which can be useful in the backcountry.
I have a few other apps that are occasionally useful in the backcountry, but these are the apps that I use the most. I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive, so let me know what apps you use.